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Masterpiecing Electroacoustic Music

Pedagogical reflections from a musicological perspective

This paper was presented at the Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium 2010, during the EA Education session chaired by Kevin Austin.

In this paper, I use the program for a concert of electroacoustic music as a point of departure for discussing issues related to teaching electroacoustic music in the musicology or music theory classroom. The concert in question is the Masterpieces of 20th Century Multi-channel Tape Music concert that was hosted by Columbia University in the summer of 2000 as part of the Lincoln Center 2000 Festival. This concert can be seen as having served a kind of pedagogical role — or having pedagogical undertones — both because of its university setting and because, offered as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, it attracted a broader and more general audience than the usual electroacoustic music concert (or typical college campus concert for new music, for that matter) and therefore most likely served as an introduction to the genre for many of its audience members. Moreover, since Columbia University was home to the first academic centre for electronic music in the United States, its association with the concert adds a particular weight of authority.

Indeed, the concert heading makes it sound like an intro survey class: Masterpieces of 20th Century Multi-channel Tape Music (hereafter MMTM). 1[1. I should mention that the companion website used the title Masterpieces of 20th Century Electronic Music, although this heading referred not only to the tape music concert, but also to one exhibit of old electronic music equipment as well as another exhibit of interactive multimedia installations created by graduate students at the Columbia Computer Music Center.] In case you’re unfamiliar with undergraduate course titles and don’t see the connection here, I’ve provided a list of the four foundational courses that have served as the core curriculum at Columbia University for more than 60 years (note that three out of the four titles contain the subheading “Masterpieces of…”) :

On its website, Columbia describes its core curriculum as providing students with “perspectives on significant ideas and achievements in literature, philosophy, music, art, and science.” The online program notes to the MMTM concert echoes these pedagogical (or academic) concerns by asserting that the concert presents “some of the most influential works of electronic music of the last half of the 20th century” and that “each work presented is indicative of one of the main schools of electronic composition of the last half of the 20th century” (Thanassis et al 2000).

What were the masterpieces presented in the MMTM concert? What is the measure of their influence? And, how does each indicate a main school of electronic composition? To explore these questions, I first provide a list of the works in question, in the order of their appearance in the concert:

In terms of influence as measure by historical importance, the first two pieces on the program — Varèse’s Poème électronique and Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge — seem to be the least controversial. Varèse is often referred to (at least in some circles) as the father of electronic music because he was one of the most well known composers of Western art music of the early mid-20th century to have an obsession for exploring new timbres and experiments with sound. One of his most famous works is of course Ionisation (1930) for large percussion ensemble, that includes the use of a siren, and he demonstrated great enthusiasm for the new sonic possibilities of electronic instruments, incorporating the Theremin and ondes Martenot into his works Amériques (1918–21, rev. 1927) and Ecuatorial (1934). Notably, Poème électronique is the only work he created solely for tape (and, as the program notes to MMTM recall, he was 75 years old when this work was completed) and only one of two that employ the tape medium — the other is Desérts (1950–54) for brass, percussion, piano, and tape.

The program notes by James Fei assert that the music of Poème électronique is to be understood as an integral part of a larger multimedia sound installation, since it was premiered as part of the Philips Pavilion (designed by Le Corbusier with the assistance of Iannis Xenakis) at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels (Thanassis et al 2000, section on Varèse). Unlike the audience at the MMTM concert, the people who experience Poème électronique at its premiere did not sit quietly in a darkened concert hall, but rather were wandering through the pavilion along a pre-determined path, confronted with various images while the 8-minute piece was diffused over an array of 400 speakers distributed through the building.

If the historical significance of the piece weren’t enough to guarantee its inclusion in the MMTM concert, the fact that the Columbia University Computer Music Center was in possession of a rare 3-channel mix of the work in its archive perhaps served to clinch the deal. Columbia came into possession of this mix through Varèse’s student and executor of his will, Chou Wen Chung, who was a long-time professor of composition at the university.

Stockhausen, of course, was another prominent composer in the avant-garde of Western art music in the 20th century, and his name seems synonymous with elektronische Musik. Gesang der Jünglinge was celebrated at its premiere as the first work of electronic music to move beyond the stage of composition study (the fact that so many composers preferred to name their early attempts at electroacoustic music composition as studies may be seen as evidence in support of this claim). Much has also been made of the fact that this work combined both electronically synthesized sound and recorded sound — one of the first to do so back in the day when the synthetically generated sound of elektronische Musik was understood as being æsthetically opposed to the recorded (or sampled) sounds of musique concrète. Of course, the compositional technique of the work still very closely aligned itself to the serialist practices of elektronische Musik rather than the more ear-driven practices of musique concrète, and therefore this work can be understood as indicative of the so-called Cologne School.

The third piece on the program, that rounds out the first half of the concert, is of more narrow and specifically American influence: Paul Lansky’s Night Traffic. Alternative rock scenesters may know Paul Lansky as “the guy Radiohead sampled on the Kid A album” (released in 2000). However, Lansky is a very influential figure in the American computer music scene, especially known for his Idle Chatter series of pieces that used sampled voice (conversations) that are processed using a software tool that he wrote himself, and employing a technique called Linear Predictive Coding. Night Traffic, however, is a little outside of his usual style, as he took a recording that he made of his local highway in New Jersey, and processed it through a series of comb filters tuned to a chord progression that he borrowed from the theme to the TV show, Twin Peaks2[2. Lansky confessed this borrowing in a video-taped interview with Colby Leider, included as part of the online program notes to MMTM (Thanassis et al 2000, section on Lansky).] Contrary to what might be implied by the heading of the MMTM concert, this piece is in stereo — which, of course, is more “multi-channel” than the main mono track of Poème électronique, but is not what one usually things of as a multi-channel work. For the purposes of the concert, therefore, this two-channel work was diffused over four channels.

Does Night Traffic indicate a “main school of electronic composition,” and if so, which one? As a work by a professor at Princeton University, does Night Traffic indicate a “Princeton School”? Or, since Lansky served as mentor to the director of Columbia’s Computer Music Center, might this be understood as the “Columbia-Princeton School” of electronic music, with nods to the early years of the association among Columbia professors Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, and Princeton professor Milton Babbitt? Or, because the starting point of the piece is a recording from the environment that Lansky then tries to “get inside of”, did the organizers intend for this piece to indicate soundscape composition?

I actually suspect the latter; and, similarly, I think Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Chréode, which starts off the second half of the program, was intended to indicate the compositional style associated with IRCAM. Chréode was composed from material derived from an acoustic analysis of vowel formants and this was coupled with rule-based algorithms for generating structure. Very IRCAM, except that this work was entirely composed of synthesized sound whereas the usual practice at IRCAM is to combine electronic sound with acoustic instrumental performance (examples of which would not have fit into a program of multi-channel tape music). And, of course, Barrière was employed at IRCAM not as a composer but as a researcher. Indeed, he was one of the programmers for the IRCAM software CHANT, which was the sound generator for Chréode — and I have heard some people within the computer music community suggest — off the record — that this piece serves basically as an extended software demo. This observation raises the question: Is the chief object of influence here the musical work, Chréode, or the music software, CHANT? Interestingly, the MMTM program notes that accompany Chréode, written by the composer himself, serve to contextualize the piece with respect the Barrière’s work as a researcher rather in terms of other musical compositions (Thanassis et al 2000, section on Barrière); I will return to this point later.

The MMTM program notes expressly identifies the fifth work on the program, Denis Smalley’s Vortex, as indicative of the acousmatic school of composition (ibid., section on Smalley). What is curious about the selection of this work is that acousmatic music is most closely associated with the Paris-based Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) and its founder, Pierre Schaeffer. While Smalley’s influence as a composer may be eclipsed by that of some of his French-speaking colleagues within the core acousmatic music communities in France, Belgium and Québec, he has had a strong influence within the acousmatic community in his adopted-home country of England; and his theoretical writings on spectromorphology have extended his influence to electroacoustic music communities in other English-speaking countries.

A video of abstract geometric images and polytopes was projected as a companion to Iannis Xenakis’ Bohor, which ended the concert program. Xenakis, like Varèse and Stockhausen, was one of the prominent composers of the 20th century, and while his instrumental output outweighs his electronic music output, he is equally well known for both. Bohor is not necessarily his most influential piece of electronic music — that might be Concret PH, which was premiered alongside Varèse’s Poème électronique in 1958 and has a duration of under three minutes. No, Bohor was described in the program notes to MMTM as Xenakis’ “first large-scale electronic work” due to its length of 23 minutes (ibid., section on Xenakis).

As sound material for Bohor, Xenakis used recordings of a variety of sources: Laotian mouth organ (khen), prepared piano, Iraqi and Hindi jewellery, vocal fragments. These were processed and arranged according to pre-determined amplitude and pitch contours — the kind of geometric structures Xenakis would use as the basis of both his electronic and instrumental works. Does Bohor then indicate a mathematic-geometric school of electronic music composition? Or does Bohor indicate a kind of unnamed antithesis to musique concrète, since critical outcry that erupted against the work at the premiere in Paris (15 December 1962) reportedly served to finalize the end of Xenakis’ association with Pierre Schaeffer and the GRM studios (ibid.)? Or, as Thom Holmes suggests (2002, 262), is Bohor the seed from which the so-called noise and industrial sub-sets of electronic music grew?

Many questions remain unanswered regarding the selection and evaluation of these six so-called masterpieces; while strong arguments can be found, both in the program notes and elsewhere, in support of the strong influence of at least half of the six works presented in the MMTM concert, it is equally possible to argue that two or three of the works were chosen more as token examples of a particular school of electronic music composition rather than for any outstanding quality that would otherwise mark it as a masterpiece. While the indicated school of electronic music composition in each case was rarely expressly stated in the MMTM program notes, these may be inferred at least with enough certainty as to determine which were definitely left out: no real soundscape composition, and nothing of the more meditative experiments that might be associated with the American West coast electronic music scene. Actually, looking at the pieces from a different angle, there seems to be an overriding emphasis on works that employ some manner of algorithmic processes: a mathematical algorithm lay behind the elaborate switching mechanism that determined the manner in which the playback of Poème électronique was diffused among the array of 400 loudspeakers; Stockhausen employed serialist techniques in composing Gesang; Lansky employed algorithms in Night Traffic, as well as his other electronic works; Barrière explicitly used rule-based algorithms for generating the structure of Chréode; and the very mathematically-minded Xenakis was inspired by polytopes in composing Bohor.

Thus five out of the six works presented in the program suggest an emphasis on algorithmic processes, which are more specifically associated with computer music (particularly in cases when the term computer music is used as an umbrella term rather than electronic or electroacoustic music). This, coupled with the desire to present the works using the latest multimedia technology available (specifically through the computer-generated videos shown during the diffusion of Chréode and Bohor), offers a glimpse into how the staff of Columbia’s Computer Music Center were at the time carving out a new æsthetic and ideological position reflective of the Computer Music Center’s name change (just four years earlier) from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Indeed, reflecting on the concert program from this perspective, the organizers appear to have been ultimately less interested in the æsthetic evaluation of the works in question than in providing a framework for the experience of these works using the latest multimedia technologies.

This observation serves as a caution for musicologists and music theorists who are seeking an introduction to electronic music (or electroacoustic music, or computer music), not to take such short-lists (or even long lists) of so-called great works at face value. Of course, such a warning echoes the decades of what Rachel Donadio (2007) calls “the canon wars” on university campuses. The special problem of electronic music is that, because of its relative youth as a genre, there is no established, conventional canon of works (except, perhaps, for the very early works of the 1950s and 60s that have already been subsumed into the general narrative of the history of Western music) that might serve as a rough guide for argument. Moreover, the vast majority of literature on electronic music has been written by composers from within the electronic music community — or even composers writing about their own works, as was the case of Barrière’s MMTM program notes — and therefore scholarly literature on the subject is especially rife with feudalism and otherwise lays emphasis on the composer’s perspective, be it technical or æsthetic concerns.

So what is a musicologist enjoined with the teaching of a survey class of electronic music to do? How is a music theorist interested in the analysis of electroacoustic works meant to proceed? How does the preceding discussion provide us with criteria for evaluating electroacoustic works? Are we to infer that an intimate knowledge of the technologies involved a prerequisite for evaluation? Do works created by the use of electronic / computer technologies require the use of electronic / computer technologies (spectral analysis, etc.) in the evaluation (explanation)? And, finally, how do these works fit within a larger historical narrative of Western art music (or do they)?

Clearly the MMTM concert program does place its presentation of works within the tradition of Western Art music, and this context had consequences on not only which works were selected, but how they were presented. All of the composers in question had training in traditional Western music; there is a tendency in the program notes to explain each work in terms of compositional technique, with a preference for works that can be described by means of its intrinsic properties or as a kind of sonic mapping of quasi-mathematical relationships. This may be contrasted with soundscape composition, for example, that involves a contemplation of the relationship between listener and environment; electronic music that has arisen from experimental DJ culture; and so-called sound art, whose creators often have extensive training in the visual rather than musical arts, yet nonetheless are interested in exploring their artistic ideas through the medium of sound. While on the surface, these communities may seem to differ sharply in terms of æsthetic interests and the ways in which they talk about their compositions within their respective communities, it may be worth exploring whether these distinctions hold up when analyzed from a listener’s perspective.

Frédéric Perreten has argued that, in the face of such fragmentation of styles, traditional pedagogical methods of presenting music history — in terms of historical chronologies, or focused on the presentation of historical data such as composer biographies, great composers / great works — are no longer effective (Perreten 2010). While Matti Huttunen seeks a solution to the problem of how to define a canonical repertory by expanding the notion into a “canon of facts” that includes a “certain class of historical persons, works, events, trends, and other historical facts” (Huttunen 2008, 13), Perreten suggests that the primary pedagogical focus should not be on the memorization of facts. Rather than attempting to present an objective hierarchy of knowledge in terms of works, composers, and æsthetic definitions, Perreten argues that the main goal should be to instil students with skills and strategies for developing their own knowledge, with a focus on critical listening skills. In this way, he promotes a critical engagement with any given work based on a critical dialogue with a variety of music.

Richard Taruskin (2008) has pointed out that the problem with upholding works as masterpieces is that it renders them untouchable. Given this perspective, the MMTM concert’s presentation of the six so-called masterpieces could be understood as inhibiting critical discussion of these works; I hope that my discussion above has served to rehabilitate a critical dialogue with these works in a way that will be neither dismissive nor idolizing. Like Perreten, I understand such a critical dialogue as an imperative in my own activities as a music theorist and pedagogue of electronic music.


Donadio, Rachel. [Essay] “Revisiting the Canon Wars.” The New York Times, 16 September 2007. Available online at [Last accessed 21 May 2011]

Holmes, Thom. Electronic and Experimental Music: A History of New Sound. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Huttunen, Matti. “The Historical Justification of Music.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 16/1 (Spring 2008), pp 3–19.

Perreten, Frédéric. “On ne s’endort pas! Réflexion sur la pédagogie de l’histoire de la musique du XXe siècle.” Dissonanz 109 (March 2010).

Taruskin, Richard. 2008. “Shall We Change the Subject? A Music Historian Reflects.” Stanford University Presidential Lecture. [Video] uploaded to YouTube by user “StanfordUniversity” on 10 September 2009. [Last accessed 21 May 2011]

Rikakis, Thanassis [curator] et al. “Concert Presentation”. Masterpieces of 20th-Century Multi-Channel Tape Music. Columbia Computer Music Center, 2000.

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